When was the last time you visited a cemetery? I bet it was when someone died, wasn’t it? Whereas I spend a lot of time there. Surprised? You’re probably wondering why I could possibly want to spend time with a bunch of dead people. Well, there’s a lot of life in a cemetery if you know where to find it. Come on along with me, and I’ll show you what I mean.
It’s a Sunday morning on a hot summer’s day. I’m riding my bike on the sizzling cement, the sun is beating down on my back as I pedal along Indian Creek Road to the cemetery. I can’t wait to get there because I know once there, I’ll find just what you need. Shade and comfort.
There’s a chestnut tree in the cemetery that must be 200 years old. Perhaps it was planted when they first designated it as a site for the dead, for there is a grave that has, over the years, nourished the tree to life. It appeals to me that my body could one day become a part of the life of a tree. Its corrugated arms branch out in all directions, and when the sun goes down at night, it illuminates the dark shadows of its massive arms. And fireflies dance on the grave stones at night. I know this because one night, my girlfriend and I parked our chairs in front of this very tree to sketch it. I remember some guy went by who asked what we were waiting for. I should have told him, we were waiting for the ghosts to come out. And they do.
Every year during the season of ghosts and goblins, the Chatham Historical Society puts on a ghost walk at Maple Leaf Cemetery. I found myself there one year where my friend and I walked along the dark tree-lined pathways, clutching each other for safety, while we traipsed after our guide and listened with rapt attention, as we were taken back into another time another place.
All along the cemetery walkways, lanterns bobbed eerily in the witching hour as guides walked its hallowed passageways towards the next apparition who would tell us tales of long dead dinosaurs that once roamed the earth beneath our feet, and about a mysterious man who murdered his wife during the Depression era simply because she had a business that was doing well and he had nothing.
But the worst story of all happened in 1977 when a man raped, strangled, and slashed a 22 year old woman across the chest with a kitchen knife in an attempt to crawl inside her to keep warm. No wonder she still walks the earth. I’m sure she still has some unfinished business to tend to.
The gravestones have their own story to tell if you take the time to look. In the oldest part of the cemetery, there are headstones for an entire family of children who died within days of each other at the turn of the last century, suggesting that perhaps they might have died in an epidemic of some kind.
Then there are the unborn babies who never got to experience life as we know it. How their parents must have grieved their loss. But they are all remembered with emblems of love: a teddy bear, flowers, and hearts that sit on a red bench as though offerings of comfort to the dearly departed. There are no answers for why they died, only acceptance for what cannot be changed. Past lives still survive in this cemetery. Even in the mausoleum that stands as a cold sentinel to the past, there is comfort and life. Especially when you and your friends decide to celebrate an October birthday within the embrace of its deathly folds.
But mostly, I just ride my bike in the cemetery. And it’s usually on a Sunday when I don’t have to hurry back home. It’s my way of spending time with God. It’s a place of comfort and reflection. Sometimes I’ll even sit on a bench in the Garden of the Unborn and pull out pen and paper, and let my mind wander onto the page. And from time to time I’ll even run into someone I know who is walking their dog, or riding their own bike, and we’ll stop and chat. I like the idea that that the dead get lots of company, so that their lives are not lost and forgotten. It gives me hope that when I die that someone, somewhere in the future, will be riding their bike on a hot summer day and will stop to say hello.
After assuring the city of our age and responsibility, they agreed to unlock its doors for us. We brought in a table, chairs, flowers, candles, and we decorated everything in black and white. We even had music playing in the background to serenade our ghostly guests that surrounded us in the floor to ceiling crypts. Sunlight shone through the stained glass windows shedding a warm glow over us, as though blessing that space between life and death. We felt surprisingly safe in there and had a wonderful celebration of our friend’s birth.